It is called Burntcoat by Sarah Hall, published by Jonathan Cape, a small publisher famous for its bonny red ink. After the publishing revamp, and hopefully a successful run, we might see a trend of action thriller novels that combine page-turning with a warning against exposing yourself to a pandemic – or multiple pandemics, a threat novel like the recent Dalloway by Susanna Clarke, or any novel that embeds horror in the language to challenge and engage the reader.
I am a proponent of the next innovation in literature. It is called “point-and-click”, because text pages can be brought and remade by hand. Sliding on an actual page can never do the job of making a reader feel the experience of motion (all the fine print, all the blocky wall text, the buffing by a bloke across the front page, the drop of a pen, the dot of a small pencil) and because text pages are so far away from the mouth, it has never been possible to keep your eye on a page without trying to rush through it. In a novel’s world, a book page might as well be a miniature version of the other worlds, a different kind of fracas.
The advantages to paging are obvious: it is much more efficient than typing, and easily reconfigured to fit the mood of the story. It is also much better than trying to read paragraph by paragraph across a bedsheet. You can touch. Touch. Let loose. On the move. Pause and swallow. And then move on to the next book page, blinking into the night and with the right strokes changing the shape and colour of the veins in your eyelids.
Writing in newspapers, I have sometimes felt slightly uncertain about the usefulness of words – which is to say I have always found them rather tricky to learn, or understand, or use correctly. Reading feels quite different. It is more fluid, the language seems quicker and less opaque. The words feel more set in their relation to the surroundings and therefore stand a chance of being used in the right way by the reader.
Whereas I find books too quick to read on trains, I actually learn to like the way I think about a text as I read, or at least I long to do so, possibly because my subconscious system has evolved from what I have known so far. It may be what I have said over and over again as an adolescent: that language is like money, it is a kind of security and then I get old and fat and widowed and start to withdraw, my ownership of the language (or any kind of ownership) is slowly undermined. However, there are certain kinds of lexical change that I don’t really like.
This is a book that will be hard to read, like living with an illness, painful and unpredictable, in some ways easy to relate to. I’m not sure it will be easy to read again, but then I’m not sure the world in general will ever be easy to read again. Reading words felt as though they had something beside them to present – that they had to separate from their context, to try to be different to others, and that this could go on forever. I’m not sure these momentary divisions work any more. Physical geography – the letter A, this colour, that name, this name, it can feel like a gulf – is becoming less important than the means by which we experience identity.
This is a novel with certain kinds of attempts at narrative uncertainty which have no clear narrative end. Even if you were confident your journey was being made by an expert writer, did it really need to be done at this exact pace? Is it serious to use the word “stillbirth” in a novel? Hall deserves to be heard as one of the great novelists of the present. Whether or not this novel or any other will test our understanding and rationality, or affirm our certainty that we are different is the real test.
• This article was amended on 17 December 2018. Due to a editing error, “Pluck” was removed.